Chris Christie calls for 'balance' on child vaccinations. What's his point?

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Monday that 'parents need to have some measure of choice' in vaccinating of children. The topic is fraught with political sensitivities.

Neil Hall/Reuters
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (l.) wears safety glasses during his visit to the One Nucleus life science company headquarters in Cambridge, England, Monday.

Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie on Monday waded into the emotional subject of childhood vaccinations. Why did he do that? That’s not a big partisan issue in United States politics – at least, not yet.

First, the background: New Jersey Gov. Christie toured a biomedical research facility in Cambridge, England, as part of a three-day trade mission to the United Kingdom. The facility makes a nasal flu vaccine for a US-based company.

In remarks afterward, Governor Christie struck what he might have thought was a balanced note on vaccinations. First, he noted that he and his wife had vaccinated their own four children. That’s “the best expression I can give you of my opinion,” he said.

So he’s pro-shot? Well, not exactly. He implied that Washington should refrain from requiring vaccinations as a matter of law.

“I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well. So that’s the balance that the government has to decide,” he added.

States set the childhood vaccination regimen within their boundaries. Right now, all 50 require certain vaccinations for kids to enroll in schools.

But there’s also a measure of parental control in some parts of the country. Twenty states allow parents to opt their children out of the vaccination requirement if they sign a personal or religious belief waiver. This includes California, where some 100 youngsters have been diagnosed with measles in recent weeks.

So, in one sense, Christie was just endorsing the current regimen, perhaps. As a Republican he’s going to stress personal responsibility and deemphasize a role for what he’d probably label a federal nanny state.

“What (I think) Christie was trying to do was be aware that people don’t, generally, like being told what to do with their children,” writes Chris Cillizza of "The Fix" political blog of The Washington Post.

The problem is that the California situation has heightened the vaccine debate. Scientists are accusing a small group of anti-vaccination activists of endangering the larger cohort of children.

These anti-vaccination proponents are often caricatured as wealthy granola types who don’t want anything that’s not organic in their homes. The reality is that they are widely spread across religious, political and ideological demographics. It is not as if Christie is raising an issue that would obviously benefit him with, say, conservatives in GOP primaries.

On the national level, left-wing and right-wing influences on anti-vaccination believers are basically a “wash,” according to The Washington Post’s Chris Mooney.

And Christie’s statement does not reflect the opinion of the larger US population. Sixty-eight percent of US adults say parents should be required to vaccinate their children, according to a Pew poll from last fall. This number is broadly stable among most subgroups, with the exception of age. Adults under 50 are slightly more likely to say parents should be able to decide this issue, according to Pew data.

The bottom line: Christie has pleased few and irritated many with his statement, which isn’t good political practice. Perhaps someone told him that “choice” in vaccinations might be a good stance to take, given that “choice” in education and health care is a conservative rallying cry, writes Noah Rothman at the right-leaning "Hot Air."

“All of this suggests that Christie is getting some bad advice from a communications consultant who thinks the Garden State governor can be all things to everyone,” writes Mr. Rothman.

Christie’s office has since issued what it calls a clarification of his remarks from earlier Monday in England.

“To be clear: The governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection and with diseases like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated. At the same time different states require different degrees of vaccination, which is why he was calling for balance in which ones government should mandate,” reads the statement.

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